Why Sony is being smarter with indie gaming than its rivals

Over the last eight years, Sony’s internal studios and third-party partnerships have produced a famously long string of artistic, off-kilter, experimental console games. In a slightly abstract way, that trait is an extension of the platform holder’s philosophy since the days of the PS1. Who else was putting out games like Parappa the Rapper as triple-A releases back then? Who else would let a studio like Team Ico take 12 years (so far) to (not) complete a trilogy? And of course, there’s now Sony’s forward-looking indie focus for the PS4 which, at this year’s Gamescom in particular, earned the platform-holder widespread plaudits for seemingly presenting the most modern, progressive approach to next-gen.

But how much of Sony’s open-minded, creative persona is genuine, and how much is PR bluster intended to score early jabs against a Microsoft now often perceived as unswerving and out-of-touch? Recently I had the chance to sit down with Richard Haggett and Richard Hogg--both of Honeyslug studio--designer and artist on upcoming PS3/PS4 indie game Hohokum. As creator of early Vita hit Frobisher Says, Honeyslug already has a decent amount of experience working on the more creative side of Sony’s line-up, and so seemed a prime source to talk about the current state of the company’s outlook. So talk we did. At length. And it rather turns out that Sony’s bright, new democratic future of 'interesting game design for all' feels like a very real thing.

Hogg, for example, sees Sony’s conspicuously game-focused direction with the PS4 as an important statement of intent itself.  

“One, they’re definitely putting the focus back on video games rather than all the other Netflix bollocks, which is, I think, amazing. And also, I think indie games and unusual types of games are a big part of their message. Look at how big a part of both the E3 press conference and the Gamescom press conference that was. Mark Cerny talking about indie games. I don’t think that’s just lip-service either. I think they’ve realised that it is the future.”

Indeed, I myself was heartened by SCEA President Jack Tretton’s early comments regarding the PS4’s online marketplace, which seemed to imply an organic, non-compartmentalised storefront featuring games in all their forms, with price being the only distinguishing factor. Haggett seems to agree:

"Yeah, the absence of ghettos. We definitely don’t need any more Xbox Live Indie Games type channels. Because it’s insulting. It’s meaningless as well. When the biggest selling game on Xbox Live is Minecraft by an order of magnitude, and yet they have this thing called Xbox Live Indie Games… But yeah, it’s great to see Sony just rolling it into one place."

Of course, it’s easy for a cynical, world-weary journo to find less altruistic reasons for Sony’s move towards independent developers. Sony of course, does not have access to the almost limitless coffers enjoyed by Microsoft, and with several of its divisions in a fair bit of trouble over recent years, it needs to be more frugal about the way it launches a console. And it’s surely more cost effective, in terms of creating superficial impressions at least, to spend a publishing and marketing budget across a lot of small games to than risk it all on two or three big ones.

But while that may or may not be the case (or part of it, at least), there is an unmistakable sense when talking to the Hohokum team that Sony’s brave new indie world stems from a place of genuine care for video game design, and is part of a progressive overall view on the changing shape of gaming. As Haggett mentions, while we discuss the evolution of gaming culture moving into next-gen:

“I think the other thing that’s happened over the last couple of years is that the power of large marketing budgets to command attention on games has been neutered somewhat by the ability of people to put Let’s Play videos on Youtube. And it’s about ‘Ah, what’s interesting to watch someone play? Is it Call of Duty, or is it Minecraft and Spelunky?’”

Indeed, it does feel like Sony is hitting this stuff at exactly the right time. There’s been a definite shift in the way that even the mainstream perceives games over the last couple of years. Perhaps fed by ennui at an over-long passing console generation, perhaps the product of developers’ increasing dissatisfaction with the rigidity of console publishing possibilities, PC gaming has made a major resurgence, and the eclectic mix of gaming that has resulted cannot be ignored by anyone. In fact, as a result of online gaming culture’s increasing shift towards YouTube, it’s almost impossible to avoid.

Hogg continues, with an anecdote to chill the average Activision suit to the bone:

“I was talking to a friend of mine’s son, who’s 12, maybe 14, and I asked him what games he plays. And he plays Minecraft and Spelunky. He’s just a normal kid. He’s not got arty-farty left-wing parents. He’s not been influenced by someone who’s into indie games. They’re just the games he’s found that he likes. I think he plays some more mainstream games as well, but his favourite games are Minecraft and Spelunky.”

In short, the gaming community is now telling the publishers what they want to see, not the other way around. Traditional models of marketing and asset distribution are giving way to more organic, empowered conversations among the audiences that stuff used to be aimed at. A PR contact of mine recently lamented the way that some of his less forward-thinking clients complain about a news story not making it to Google, yet completely ignore the global Twitter conversation that might have been going on for hours.

But again, whether you take the cynical view that Sony has quickly latched onto a new game marketing tool, or interpret it as a more benevolent, community-building feature (in truth, again, it’s probably both), the DualShock 4’s Share button could not have come at a better time. It might well be a way to get players to do a publisher’s marketing for free, but the communication and discoverability boost it will bring to more left-field console gaming will change the landscape of the kind of games people play.

As we discuss the way that games in general are evolving, particularly in regard to the rise of less pressured, more exploratory experiences like Gone Home, Dear Esther and the playful giddiness of Hohokum’s reactive, abstract worlds, we naturally cover the ongoing argument regarding what modern games actually are and the boundaries of terminology that define them. We all agree that it doesn’t matter, and that gaming’s diversification is both inevitable and utterly positive.

Says Hogg, “I love the idea that in 10 years’ time the mainstream of video games will be the sort of thing that we’re championing, [the games] that--at the moment--are quite marginal”. And Haggett is thoroughly adamant that this future is something that Sony is working towards on a software level, beyond the increased shareability afforded by its system architecture. “That’s a big part of what the team at Sony Santa Monica are doing”, he says. “They’re trying to move the centre line. Even if they can only move it a little bit, it will help”.

That philosophy has been clear in the aforementioned Sony studio’s journey of diversification over the last 12 years. Initially making its name with futuristic racer Kinetica, and then God of War--arguably its best-known franchise--Santa Monica has since been involved in a huge number of the PlayStation brand’s more experimental games, from Fl0w onwards. And it’s now helping Honeyslug with the development and audio design of Hohokum. That’s one hell of an impressively eclectic back catalogue, and one few would have foreseen when Kratos first burst onto the scene through a Harpy’s exploding ribcage in 2005. Indeed, some are still unaware of the studio’s full body of work, as Hogg points out.

“I guess it’s got to the point now where they’ve got a reputation for supporting [this kind of thing]. It’s funny though, in my [GameCity 2013] presentation this morning I asked how many people associate Sony Santa Monica with that sort of stuff, and not many people put their hands up, which was interesting.

“…I guess Fl0w was the first game that felt like something different. I was like ‘Weurgh, Sony Santa Monica? They’re the God of War people’. And that continued with the other ThatGameCompany games, with Flower, Journey and Linger in Shadows.”

“And that bit of Sony Santa Monica”, he continues, “which is their external development team, it’s a small group of really passionate people who are trying to make interesting, high-quality games happen. They’re now working with The Chinese Room on Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. And also The Order is another one of their external things, so they’re into the more conventionally-playing stuff as well. Yeah, they’re great to work with”

Haggett continues the appreciation, telling me about the tertiary bonuses of being an indie under the Sony wing by explaining that Hohokum’s collaboration with record label Ghostly International just couldn’t have happened any other way. But it’s not all about deals and corporate clout.

“On a practical level they’re both funding the game and also allowing these opportunities to happen. But we’ve also been out to LA a couple of times and just sat there and chewed things over with people who are really into what we’re doing and really understand what we’re doing, but are one step removed. Their faces aren’t right up against it, and they’re able to have a bit more perspective. And it’s good to have that relationship with someone who’s giving you money, but they’re also giving you advice that isn’t connected with the fact that they’re giving you money.”

That last point feels like an important one to emphasise here. Just before some of you rush down to the bottom of the page to drop “OMGBIAS!” comments (perhaps understandable, when the developers of a currently Sony-exclusive game are saying nice things about Sony), know that the tone of our hour-long pub chat felt anything but. In fact Hogg, quite early on, flagged up a fear that “I almost sound like they’ve got to me, and that I’m a shill. But it’s true. I’ve only had a positive experience with them.”

Because it seems that Sony’s culture of outreach doesn’t take the form of helping a chosen few from an ivory tower. Instead, it seems that Sony does in fact see all elements of gaming equally and, crucially, sees itself as part of the spectrum.

“There’s a bunch of those guys," says Haggett, “all over America and they UK, and they’re kind of part of the indie community. They’re on Twitter and they’re following a bunch of indie developers and getting involved in those conversations, so when games emerge--whether they emerge on Twitter, or on Kickstarter or wherever--those Sony guys just know anyway because they’re part of that community. There’s no need to fill in a form. They’re just part of it.”

As an example, he cites Nick Suttner, ex-journalist and now Account Support Manager at SCEA. “He’s just a guy who you meet at indie parties who just happens to work for Sony. That genuinely is how it is. And there are people like that at Nintendo and Microsoft, but I think there are just way fewer of them, and I think the corporate culture at those companies is just a bit different. They’re just behind in terms of having a corporate culture that supports it.

“The nice thing about Sony is that if you look at them, if you follow them on Twitter, you’ll see people like Scott Rhode and Shuhei Yoshida tweeting about making Soundshapes levels. So it goes up the structure. Whereas you get the sense that at Microsoft and Nintendo maybe it doesn’t have that kind of love for indie stuff. There are people where who are totally into it, but it maybe doesn’t go up as far. And it’ll take time for that stuff to bed in.”

Indeed it might. But I can’t help feeling that as this new console generation develops, it must. Think back to the start of the 360/PS3 generation. Think of the culture and services built around the then-new consoles, and then consider where they and we ended up. We’re long past the days of the console experience remaining static between the launches of new generations.

The platforms our machines represent are now capable of rapid evolution, and they must make use of that ability in order to stay relevant and address changing audience needs. That dynamism is part of what helped the once 'dead' PC make a major resurgence recently, and consoles must follow its lead. I’m now confident that Sony is on the right path. If the other two can get up to speed quickly, then the most exciting console generation in years may just be starting.

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  • D0CCON - December 4, 2013 8:56 p.m.

    Great interview. The attention given to indies was one of the biggest reasons I bought the PS4 over the XB1. I love PC gaming and indies are a major part of that. While no console can take the indie crown from PC, it looks like the PS4 is the best console available for those wanting the maximum number of unique game exclusives (Wii U has Nintendo's stable of exclusives, which is great, but I'm worried about that console's future).
  • shawksta - November 28, 2013 10:07 a.m.

    Interesting read about indies in general.
  • Scoob - November 28, 2013 9:15 a.m.

    The tricky thing here for me to on board with is what is the point of getting a shiny new system when the big push is to play games that can run systems made two generations ago? I was into the indie stuff when Microsoft made a huge push for it seven years ago on the 360. I have a fair number of the games, and many indie titles on my PC and PS3 as well. But my primary reason for getting a new system for me is to play the cutting edge AAA stuff. The other cause for concern I have is the issue of not being able to port my games up to the next generation. The thing about indie titles is that because they are not made to be cutting edge in a technical sense is that they have a timeless quality about them. I can still go back to old games like Castle Crashers, and Geometry Wars and have fun with them now in the same way I can games like Tetris and Mario 3. With indie games, gameplay is king, and great gameplay transcends generations. I can't say the same thing for nearly all of my old favourites in the AAA space except Nintendo's games. With both Sony and Microsoft being content to completely drop support of their last gen indie titles and marketplace titles behind, I don't see a reason to feel confident they'll find a way to do the same with their PS4 and XBO indie and marketplace titles moving forward to the 9th generation. At some point, I'll be getting rid of my 360 and PS3, and with that, my collection of digital games, and in the future, so will I with the XBO or PS4. For that reason alone, I would rather just stick with PC for my indie gaming fix as backwards compatibility isn't an issue. Nintendo, on the other hand has already converted a fair number of titles up to the WiiU marketplace and charges only a dollar for the license to play on the WiiU if you already owned the Wii version, or you can just simply fire up the Wii channel if you'd rather not. No idea how they'll handle it going to 9th gen, but it gives me more confidence than MS and Sony in that regard. The fact that I was able to port everything up so easily made the WiiU an easy day one purchase for me. I thought for sure MS and Sony would have a similar program, but I haven't heard anything yet.
  • gdawg94 - November 28, 2013 11:29 a.m.

    I don't necessarily disagree but I would like to say that just because it's an indie game and may not look "cutting edge" in the graphical department, doesn't mean it was possible on a super nintendo. Graphics do take a lot of processing power. However, there are plenty of things that may also take a lot of processing power, such as intricate physics or AI. If you have to run a logic subroutine on a million particles it's quite the task; whether they are rendered in 3D or drawn as little 2D circles. The other thing is that these newer generations make it much easier for smaller developers to make these games. When resources aren't as tight you can get away with lazier programming or perhaps less complex engines that aren't as savvy at managing resources such as RAM or CPU time. Anyhow, I think indie games definitely have their place. I feel that due to the fact that they don't have all of the resources AAA devs have, they tend to focus more on gameplay or story telling. The fact they can't fill their games with as much fluff I find helps bring out more interesting games. I find games like Minecraft, Don't Starve, Super Meat Boy, etc all have me coming back way more often for replay value. Once you've seen all the frills and fluff of an AAA game, it doesn't have the same effect the second time through.
  • garciaedwin123 - December 1, 2013 8:46 a.m.

    Just because there is a focus on indie games doesn't mean Sony isn't working on AAA titles. All their developers are working on ps4 just means we get even more games. The problem with porting your ps3 digital library to ps4 is that the two consoles run on completely different architecture but with the ps4 it is more like pc so it shouldn't really be a problem in the future. I do not see how you give Nintendo credit here when they take so long to put their roms on Wii U when the rest of the world can get them for free and faster on pretty much any other platform. Plus these are much older games and should be a lot easier to put on the Wii U than it is to put some older indie games on ps4 or x1
  • KnightDehumidifier - November 28, 2013 9:04 a.m.

    Call me who I am, but I for one am completely mixed on the matter of indie gaming on consoles. Sure, it's a terrific way for budding developers to make a name for themselves, and to stand on the same level as that of mainstream publishers and developers, but the way the big three companies discusses openly about indie gaming as being a valuable asset reaffirms the lack of ideas that are being put forth by major developers, encouraging these small studios to carry the burden of creating brand new (and daring to pitch) experiences, that the major publishers know cannot be made because of exorbitant development costs, and rampant sales demands. This, coupled with the death of mid-tier developers and development, shows that this is the last time in the video game industry in which risks are made, because it's easier to discipline a team of 20 that made a bomb of a game than a team of 200.
  • mafyooz - November 28, 2013 8:27 a.m.

    Interesting interview. Obviously there will be a financial consideration to anything Sony does regarding PS4, but I'm really hoping their positive attitude towards indie development is genuine. The games industry (on consoles at least) seems to have become quite stagnant over the past few years, which is one of the reasons I won't be getting a next-gen system for at least a year, if at all. But if a focus on indie developers breathes some real innovation and originality back into the market, it can only be a good thing for everyone concerned.